From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Hell is the grocery store after a two-year hiatus

September 20, 2011 - 11:52 AM
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Two years ago, Austin resident Carla Crownover gave up grocery stores. She didn’t hate supermarkets—on the contrary, she loved grocery shopping on Saturday mornings—but she wanted to change the way she ate. “The whole thing was about the food,” says Crownover, a part-time litigation paralegal and co-owner of Austin Urban Gardens. “What I ate and where it came from and where it lived. The whole thing was an objection to industrial agriculture.”

For two years, Crownover kept up her no-grocery experiment, limiting her food acquisition to farmers markets, farms, and her own garden. She picked up toilet paper at CVS and learned to eat only seasonal produce. She gave up her beloved prepared foods and buffet at Whole Foods. When the desire for certain fruits in the off-season became too strong, she took up canning.

“It was very odd for the first few months,” Crownover says. “It took a lot to get used to. I went the first week without milk for my coffee and no idea where I was going to get it." She knew that some people found her choices peculiar, but she came to love the new lifestyle.

Crownover set foot in a grocery store a few times during her hiatus, mostly because canning required sugar, and sugar can’t be sourced locally in Texas. Crownover says those two visits to the store gave her a little bit of grocery envy. The fruits and vegetables, gleaming and beautiful, weakened her resolve.

“I could see all the gorgeous produce that wasn’t in season that I would have to wait for,” she says. “I felt like I could almost be lured back.”

Last weekend, she did go back. Not because she’d had a change of heart about her all-local grocery diet, but because she was hosting a birthday cocktail party and needed a ton of fresh-squeezed lemon and grapefruit juice. So Crownover hopped into her car and headed over to Central Market in Austin. And she encountered hell.

“I left really not wanting to go back ever,” she says. The parking lot, which required endless circling to find a spot, horrified her. She had to leave and come back later to actually land a place. “I always park at the same spot at the farmers market,” she says.

Things were no better past the parking lot. The carts, lines, and frenzy were too much for Crownover. “I just got overwhelmed,” she says. “I forgot the routine.” Shoppers didn’t exactly exude the same warmth Crownover had experienced at the farmers market.

“People are sort of hostile when they’ve been waiting for a parking place,” she reasons.

Crownover blundered her way through the store, first forgetting how the produce department operated. “You get whatever you want from the produce department and weigh it on the scale,” she says. A receipt is printed. “I forgot to do that,” she admits.

Things were worse at the deli counter. Since she was already at the store, Crownover figured she’s pick up some smoked salmon. Big mistake. “I forgot you have to take a number,” she says. She waited and waited while customers were served around her.

“I stood there like a dork for 15 minutes without a number,” she says. After an “a-ha” moment, she clued in. “Then I pulled a number and had to wait another 20 minutes to get my smoked salmon,” she says. Crownover was disappointed when the transaction ended with a perfunctory, “Can I get you anything else?” from the man behind the counter. No hugs like at the farmers market.

“It’s just so different from my experience now,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know everyone I buy food from. They’ve all become friends. It’s a completely different experience getting a hug from your farmer and finding out they lost a couple of chickens due to the heat.”

Though the staff was courteous, nothing was the same. Crownover was shocked at the amount of boxed food. “Even if the grocery store sort of prides themselves on selling local, still the majority of the store is aisles filled with boxes,” she says, calling the sheer amount of boxed food “hard to wrap my mind around.”

Crownover got out of this hugless, difficult world of boxed food as soon as she could. She was shocked that going to a grocery store, something that used to bring her pleasure, had become miserable.

“I used to love to go,” she laments. “My normal Saturday would be Central Market and Whole Foods, both. And Costco. I liked it. It was fun. I don’t remember why it was fun.”

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